It’s the beginning of school and your classroom routines are just starting to take hold. But before you dive too deeply into your spelling instruction, why not assess your students’ knowledge of how words work? Spelling inventories are the best way to do this.
Spelling inventories are not pretests. Pretests are “small picture” assessments. In other words, they assess at the beginning of the week a student’s prior knowledge about a specific set of spelling words that they will be tested on later in the week. Spelling inventories, on the other hand, are “big picture” assessments. They are designed to give you information about your students’ broad knowledge of orthography, which is the spelling system of our English language. Spelling inventories give you information on a student’s ability to apply the alphabetic principle, remember and use conventional spelling patterns, and apply word meaning, all in the service of correctly spelling words as they write.
When it comes to terrifically useful assessments, spelling inventories top the list. First, they are an easy and efficient way to gain information about what your class generally knows about words. Secondly, they tend to break you free of thinking that spelling instruction consists of a one-size-fits-all program that utilizes a one-size-fits-all spelling list. Once you give a spelling inventory and see that there are two or more distinct levels of spelling knowledge in your class, you won’t want to continue plowing ahead with your basal spelling program. Rather, you’ll want to begin differentiating your content and instruction. My guess is that a spelling inventory will show you that some children in your class have acquired just enough word knowledge to be well suited for the weekly list, while others will be ready for more complex words, and still others will lack the foundational skills they need to spell most words on the list. If they work hard enough, these children might be able to memorize the words, but they won’t truly understand how spelling works, and they won’t be developing the skills they need to spell unknown words. For these children, you will need to step back and re-teach specific aspects of spelling.
Consider the following. The picture shows a range of spelling development in a homogeneously grouped, "middle of the road," second grade classroom.
What looks like a traditional spelling test is actually a 26-word primary inventory that I gave to thirty-two 2nd graders in May of 2015.
The inventory with the most correct spellings is on the right, the one with the least is on the left.
Here's a rough analysis of the entire classroom.
Spelling inventories provide specific diagnostic information that you can use to help individual students in specific ways, especially if you are able to coordinate and share the information with Title I reading teachers, intervention specialists, and others who can work with children in small groups. For example, you might find that three of your second grade students have not mastered the hearing, reproduction, and spelling of the short /a/, /i/, and /e/ sounds. Knowing this, a Title I teacher could take these children and teach them the skill within a small group.
Finally, spelling inventories give you more than just spelling information. They also help you to understand your students’ overall reading and writing achievement. Because she states things so succinctly (it took me four tries to correctly spell that word, by the way), I’ll quote Marcia Invernizzi once again: “…qualitative spelling inventories assess children’s developmental spelling knowledge that in large measure determines the quality of their reading and writing” (p.17). Thus, spelling inventories go a long way in explaining how and why children read and write as they do.
There are many inventories out there, including Sylvia Green’s Primary and Elementary Word Analysis, which functions as both a spelling inventory and a phonics inventory, Richard Gentry’s Monster Test (Figure 2.1), most appropriate for kindergarten children but also used during the first half of first grade, the 1998 version of Francine Johnston’s (via Louisa Moats) Primary and Elementary Spelling Inventory (Figure 2.2), a spelling inventory from the Florida Center for Reading Research (which is interesting because it is entitled Phonics Screening Inventory but is given as a spelling inventory), and the rich and complex Qualitative Spelling Inventories that appear in current editions of the Words Their Way program.
The reasons for giving any specific inventory are generally the same: determining the encoding skills of students, finding out what word features students have control of, determining the spelling stage of each student, and crafting classroom instruction that meets students at their developmental levels. Regardless of which inventory you start with, you can always move to a more or less complex one that fits your level of knowledge and comfort.
If you are familiar with spelling theory, comfortable with collecting and managing lots of data, and desiring to understand each student on a refined developmental level, then you might want to give the Primary, Elementary, or Upper Level Inventory from the current Words Their Way program. If you are hesitant to take on a detailed inventory with a complex scoring system, then you might want to start with the Primary and Elementary Word Analysis inventory or the Monster Test. Personally, I like Francine Johnston’s 1998 version of the Primary and Elementary Inventories. I find these two inventories easy to give and easy to score. Also, they give me the opportunity to think broadly about my class yet they provide me with rich information about each student. Finally, the names of the spelling features (VCe, r-controlled, vowel team) tend to match the names of the six syllable types, which is my preferred method for organizing spelling patterns.
I encourage you to find a spelling inventory that you like and understand and then give it to all of your students within the first ten days of the school year. Also, take your spelling inventory to one or two like-minded teachers and form an inventory study group. Give an inventory to your students and then come together with others to discuss the results. With a study group, you can collaborate to answer any questions that arise and bounce ideas back and forth about how you might change your spelling, phonics, and writing instruction based on the results.
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